Many Rivers to Cross …

The Los Angeles "Engineered Earth-bottom Flood Control Channel." Photo: L.A. Times

The Los Angeles "Engineered Earth-bottom Flood Control Channel." Photo: L.A. Times

Does Los Angeles County really have rivers?

Based on Thursday’s debacle of a Regional Water Board hearing, I’m not sure its staff believe that there is an L.A. River, Compton Creek, Santa Clara River, or San Gabriel River. Flood control channels, yes. Living, breathing rivers, no.

The item before the Board was Los Angeles County’s  Section 401 certification application on the “Maintenance Clearing of Engineered Earth Bottom Flood Control Channels” for about 100 water body segments.  (The application falls under a Clean Water Act section regarding dredging and filling of waters of the United States).

Unfortunately, the hearing on the item was cancelled due to a major faux pas by Board staff.  They inadvertently provided a pocket approval of the county’s application by not rendering a decision within one year of its submission. The county’s application was submitted and deemed complete for review by Board staff last August.

The end result? The county’s flawed five-year 401 certification is bound for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approval with no changes and there’s nothing we can do about it. What hurts is that the application did not commit the county to provide adequate protection for existing aquatic life beneficial uses, nor did it require any meaningful further mitigation requirements for lost riparian habitat as a result of channel maintenance.

Lewis McAdams, visionary enviro and president of the Friends of the Los Angeles Engineered Earth-bottom Flood Control Channel, and Lynn Plambeck, longtime President of the Friends of the Santa Clara Engineered Earth-bottom Flood Control Channel, spoke about the ecological and aesthetic values of those rivers. They also addressed the need to enhance the county’s maintenance program.

Heal the Bay’s James Alamillo provided the primary presentation.  James has witnessed the Army’s removal of riparian vegetation with heavy equipment, as well county crews in Compton Creek and the L.A. River.  James provided compelling visual evidence as well as copies of County Flood Control District data sheets that showed that the water quality and ecological monitoring and assessment information provided was rudimentary and basically useless.

The county has provided 62.7 acres in the Tujunga watershed for mitigation of damaged habitats since 1999. But there are no new mitigation requirements despite the fact that channel maintenance nearly always has ecological and water quality impacts, especially increased sediment load from largely denuded channel bottoms.

The county should be on the hook for at least 200 acres of restoration based on its channel maintenance activities (using a 2 to 1 mitigation ratio) over the last 10 years, James estimates.

No one is saying that the county shouldn’t be allowed to protect public health and property through flood control maintenance.  What the environmental community is saying is that there is room for improvement.

Otherwise, what is the point of the $3 billion L.A. River Revitalization Plan, the Compton Creek restoration efforts, or the San Gabriel River’s Emerald Necklace proposals.  The region needs to get to the place where flood control maintenance has minimal environmental impact. And when there are impacts, they must be mitigated.  Also, maintenance projects must be adequately monitored for water quality and ecological impacts.  Right now, it’s not happening, and thanks to the Regional Board’s inaction, the monitoring may not happen for another five years.

But there may be a silver lining.

Regional Board executive director Tracy Egoscue committed the Board to issue a Waste Discharge Requirement (WDR) permit to the county for channel maintenance before the 2010-2011 rainy season.  I’ve never seen a WDR used for a regional channel maintenance project, so I’m not sure if or how it will work.  In the interim, it’s business as usual for the rainy season of 2009-2010.

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3 Responses

  1. Mark,

    Thank you for summarizing last Thursday’s meeting. I still can’t believe it. I agree with you that none of us wants to compromise flood protection and public safety. However, aren’t we entitled to see the hydrological data that would substantiate the need to clear-cut both Compton Creek and the Los Angeles River — Yes, RIVER! — Estuary? Our “Engineered Earth-bottom Flood Control Channels” represent some of the last remaining riparian habitat in the region.

  2. “I’ve never seen a WDR used for a regional channel maintenance project”

  3. Great article Mark!

    I agree with you 100%! The Board’s defalt issuance of a 401 cert is illegal as it will cuase or contribute to a signficant degredation of waters of the U.S..

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